The Washington Navy Yard Strike and "Snow Riot" of 1835
By John G. M. Sharp
In the early nineteenth century employers almost everywhere in the new nation successfully challenged strikes and work stoppages in the courts. Strikes constituted illegal conspiracies in common law and exposed labor union members to criminal prosecution. Indeed, many individual states banned labor associations as "injurious to public morality or trade or commerce." Despite legal impediments, workers still struck employers, especially in the tremulous year of 1835, many times over efforts to limit the work day to ten hours. Amidst this strike wave the Washington Navy Yard (WNY) recorded the first strike of federal civilian employees.1 Soon after the strike began, Washington, D.C. also experienced the "Snow Riot", which saw the white workers, including Navy Yard employees, ransack the city’s free black community. The outcome of the strike was closely bound with both the long established racism directed against African Americans within the District of Columbia and the specific racial employment practices that shaped the WNY workforce.2
1. In 1830 there was a week protest at WNY workers "stood out" to raise wages to summer levels. See "Washington Navy Yard Station Log 1819 -1830, 23 March to 1 April 1830," Record Group 181, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; now online at Washington Navy Yard Station Log Entries November 1822-December 1889 Transcribed with Introduction and Notes by John G. Sharp Naval History 2014, Heritage Command https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/w/washington-navy-yard-station-log-november-1822-march-1830-extracts.html Also see Linda M. Maloney, The Captain from Connecticut: The Life and Naval Times of Isaac Hull (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986), 422.
2. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought The Transformation of America, 1815 -1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 548 and Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 416. For the first recorded strike of federal civilian employees, see David Zizkind, One Thousand Strikes of Government Employees (New York: Ayer Publishing, 1971, 24. The use of the word "strike" is not an anachronism as this was the term WNY workers used for the first time on August 13, 1835.
Phillip S. Foner, in his "History of the Labor Movement in the United States from Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor", viewed the 1835 Washington Navy Yard strike as an example of early inter-racial worker solidarity. "In a number of instances, however, Negro and white workers [at the WNY] worked and went on strike together. Thus white carpenters and Negro caulkers worked together and went on strike together." David Grimsted in his Ante-Bellum Labor: Violence, Strike, and Communal Arbitration, discounts Foner’s racial solidarity thesis, but sees no connection between the strike and the subsequent Snow Riot. "Shipyard workers were central in Washington, D.C.’s 1835 anti-black riots, but as sharers of American racism rather than in connection with protecting their position in the workplace."
This paper argues against racial solidarity at the Navy Yard and for a direct linkage between the strike and riot. National and local events in 1835 combined to bring WNY workers to strike. Long standing racial fears and anxieties moved the Yard’s white workers to take the lead in the "Snow Riot.’ Their participation in the riot subsequently led to a loss of community strike support and the collapse of their strike. This article explores how the striker’s resentment and fear of the growing black population in the Navy Yard acted as a catalyst and provided the crucial linkage that transformed a labor strike into a race riot.3
3. Phillip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States from Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor (New York: International Publishers, 1979) and David Grimsted, Rioting in Its Jacksonian Setting (The American Historical Review, Vol. 77 no. 2, April 1972), 361-397. Phillip Foner interpretation of the events of 1835 as an example of racial solidarity in American labor history was given prominence by the National Archives and Records Administration see James Gilbert Cassidy "African American in the Labor Movement" (Prologue, Vol. 29, No. 2 Summer 1997, 2.), who cites Foner for "documentation of a strike by black caulkers at the Washington Navy Yard in 1835."
For its first half century the Washington Navy Yard’s principal mission centered on building, repairing, and holding in readiness naval vessels. Founded in 1799, the shipyard built sixteen vessels ranging in size from small gun boats to midsize frigates during its early years. The Yard’s location, however, proved a major problem. Situated along the banks of a tributary of the Potomac River, large ships had difficulty navigating the shallow waters, which constantly silted up. No amount of dredging could keep the channel clear. In August 1814, the United States Navy burned WNY rather than let the invading British army take over its crucial armaments and munitions during the War of 1812. The resulting conflagration destroyed nearly all its buildings and manufacturing facilities, along with the Yard worker’s livelihoods. Most of the mechanics and laborers remained unemployed for over a year. Slowly the WNY workforce returned to the rolls as the Navy Yard grew during the next decade to become the largest employer in Washington D.C., with the total number of employees varying between 200 and 350 workers.4
4. John G. Sharp Washington Navy Yard Payroll of Mechanics and laborers 1819 -1820 Naval History and Heritage Command https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/w/washington-navy-yard-pay-roll-of-mechanics-and-labourers-c1819-1820.html
Like the larger society, the Yard’s workforce was highly stratified. At the top of the WNY stood the Commandant, a career naval officer who, in theory, exercised almost unlimited authority over all matters related to naval officers, enlisted personnel, and the civilian workforce. In practice, however, there were both institutional and customary checks on his decision-making powers. Just below him, for the civilian workforce, were the yard clerks. Their jobs were primarily administrative in nature and unlike most employees of this era they received a fixed or annual salary. Shipyard clerks also exercised considerable executive responsibility and bore no relation to modern clerical employees. In addition to their other responsibilities they were in charge of official correspondence, the conduct and recording of the daily musters, and the review of all official outgoing correspondence. Most importantly these clerks often acted for the Commandant on budget, contracting, and administrative issues; in this role they exercised wide discretion within their particular domains. Having a steady salary rather than a per diem wage meant they enjoyed a modicum of financial security and access to a wider range of amenities than that possible to mechanics and laborers. The clerks often could afford to rent or own a house, keep horses, employ servants, and in many cases own slaves. For example, in 1830 the Chief Clerk Thomas Howard owned his home, supported a large family, and held six slaves, and Master Plumber John Davis of Abel could afford a similar residence and owned four slaves.5
5. 1830 United States federal census for Washington, District of Columbia, enumerates Thomas Howard in Ward 5, roll 14; page 15 RG 29 NARA, and John Davis of Abel in Ward 6, roll 14, 26.
For shipyard workers, the master mechanics were the most important individuals in the civilian hierarchy. Master mechanics personified authority, trade knowledge and tradition and provided day-to-day leadership for workers. These individuals as recognized experts in their specialty, such as ship carpenter, joiner, blacksmith, etc., usually had many years of trade experience. At WNY, master mechanics often supervised large numbers of employees. What gave the master mechanics their power? Simply put, it was their authority to hire and dismiss mechanics and laborers. The master mechanic provided overall work direction to the tradesman through the subordinate Quarterman who led several work crews and Leadman who led an individual crew. These subordinate supervisors were usually hard driving aspirants for any openings as a master mechanic. The journeymen mechanics were the skilled tradesman and were the most plentiful of the skilled workers. Each journeyman had successfully completed a rigorous five or six year trade apprenticeship in their field. Each trade also had trainees or apprentices, who were young workers in training. Each apprentice signed a binding legal agreement with a master mechanic to return designated service for trade knowledge. The Yard also employed numerous unskilled laborers who performed heavy but necessary work such as digging, pile driving, and pulling or hauling of ships and ship parts.6
6. The Diary of Michael Shiner Relating to the History of the Washington Navy Yard 1813-1869. Naval History and Heritage Command2007 and 2015, transcribed with introduction and notes by John G. Sharp, online at https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/d/diary-of-michael-shiner.html See entries for 1827 19-20 and 27
A precarious economic and employment status constantly faced the mechanics and laborers in the Yard. Wages were subject to considerable change, in some cases daily pay fluctuated dramatically, e.g. WNY carpenters wages were reduced from a high of $2.50 per day in the year 1814 to $1.64 per day in 1820. They were in law and in fact day laborers, and paid a per diem wage only for days actually worked. Theirs was a life where the only certainties were often hard and unpleasant. A cold winter usually led to mass layoffs as only the most essential crews would be kept working. Fewer naval ships to repair invariably meant fewer mechanics and laborers on the Yard payrolls. These conditions, and especially any cutbacks in annual naval appropriations, made the workforce particularly vulnerable to economic downturn, a wage reduction and/or prolonged unemployment, which rapidly led the men to destitution.7 Most Yard workers had little savings to fall back on, and imprisonment for debt within the District of Columbia continued and was a daily reality experienced by thousands of the city’s workers each year.8
7. John G. Sharp, History of the Washington Navy Yard Civilian Workforce 1799-1962 (Stockton: Vindolanda Press, 2005), 23 now online Naval History and Heritage Command https://www.history.navy.mil/content/dam/nhhc/browse-by-topic/heritage/washington-navy-yard/pdfs/WNY_History.pdf Tingey to Board of Navy Commissioners, 9 January 1821 National Archives and Records Administration Washington DC RG 45, Entry 314, Volume 74
Tingey to Robert Smith NARA RG 260 Letters Received from Captains, 1 Jan 1806 - 21 May 1806, 16 May 1806 letter 97, proposed wage reductions averaging 17%. Also see Tingey to BNC 9 January 1821.
8. The District of Columbia, debt laws allowed imprisonment of individuals as guarantee that he or she would be available for trial. This allowed creditors to secure a legal writ sufficient for the County Marshall to arrest and detain the debtor in the County Jail. Even small debts like $1.68 could result in a debtor being incarcerated in Washington County Jail (See Library of Congress, Papers of Thomas Jefferson Series I, General Correspondence. 1651-1827 A list of Debtors in the Washington Jail dated 29 March 1803)
See : http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/P?mtj:1:./temp/~ammem_J6y6
Militia duty added to workers financial woes as it represented a time-consuming and significant economic burden for all Yard mechanics and laborers. The onerous militia requirements of the District of Columbia made it mandatory that all white males perform militia service. Such militia service was largely without compensation for designated muster days throughout the year. In practice these militia musters fell heaviest on the per diem worker who, unlike a salaried clerk, received no pay for their service and who "is compelled to muster or be fined while the [salaried] government clerk is exempt."9
9. Daily National Intelligencer, 15 June 1835.
Organizational and technological changes beginning in the late 1820s underscored the workers employment concerns, especially the 1827 decision by the Board of Navy Commissioners to centralize the procurement of Navy supplies by designating the WNY as a manufacturing center. Manufacturing now became the Yard’s main objective, which drastically reduced ship building to only five vessels between 1827 and the Civil War. As a consequence the number of carpenters and ship joiners gradually declined, while the employment of metal smiths and ordnance mechanics expanded.10 Journalist Anne Royall described the changing character of the Yard and its workers, whom she referred to as "sons of thunder," during her visit to the Yard.
10. Peck, 90-91.
The whole interior of the yard exhibits one continual thundering of hammers, axes, saws, and bellows, sending forth such a variety of sounds and smells, from the profusion of coal burnt in the furnaces, that it requires the strongest nerves to sustain the annoyance. The workmen are as black as negroes, and the heat of the furnaces at this season of the year, [June] is insufferable to one not accustomed to it. The whole is one scene of activity, not one is idle.11
11. Anne Newport Royall, Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the United States (New Haven, Conn: Barrett Library 1826), 140-143.
As a manufacturing center the Board began to require the Yard to adhere to an ever more rigorous, centralized production and planning regime where the Board, rather than master mechanics, set more exacting estimates of the requisite supplies, equipment, and manpower needed for each project.12
12. The Board of Navy Commissioners began to require reports detailing the use of manpower and other resources. See: Sharp, http://www.genealogytrails.com/washdc/wny1823boatbuilder.html
The growing employment of free blacks and slaves both in the District of Columbia and the Navy Yard further fed the job insecurity of the white workers.13 The racial composition of the District in the three decades since its founding had undergone rapid change as the number of free blacks dramatically increased from 783 in 1800 to 6,152 by 1830. An additional 6,119 slaves meant blacks now made up over one-quarter of the city’s population. By the 1830s the white workforce had begun to view free blacks as a large and growing presence and to perceive them as a possible economic threat. District of Columbia blacks also increasingly opened small businesses, such as restaurants and barbershops, and worked as coach drivers which had previously been the exclusive domain of whites.14
13. Daily National Intelligencer, 26 March 1816.
14. Letitia W. Brown, Free Negroes in the District of Columbia 1790-1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 11: 147
At the Navy Yard, too, blacks were a significant and growing presence. During the period 1800-1840 they made up approximately 10 percent of the WNY workforce with about half free and half slave. Most blacks, free and enslaved, worked in the blacksmith shop which employed many enslaved blacksmith helpers and strikers. Black freemen also made up the majority of the Yard’s ship caulkers. As criticism and objections to enslaved labor mounted, naval officers and senior civilians took full advantage of so-called "gentleman's agreements" and other subterfuges to enter enslaved individuals on the Department of the Navy musters and pay documents as "ordinary seamen", thus they avoided congressional oversight. A 12 July 1809 letter of Thomas Tingey to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton confirms the practice. Tingey requested permission to employ up to 20 good slaves in the ordinary. His deputy John Cassin elaborated, “Sometime past we are so much reduced as not able to man a boat or even to wash the decks of one of the ships. As seaman are not to be obtained at the present wages, I therefore suggest to you the propriety of employing a few slaves… as I think they will …answer for many of our purposes as Seaman.” This demographic change in the rising number of free and enslaved blacks fed the fears and anxieties of white workers.15
15. For the number of blacks working at Washington Navy Yard, I have utilized the surviving muster and payrolls for 1808, 1811, 1819 and 1829:
Tingey to Hamilton 5 May 1808 Captains letters 1 Apr 1808 – 28 Jun 1808 NARA RG 260 letter no.15
Tingey to Hamilton 19 May 1808 Captains letters 1 Apr 1808 – 28 Jun 1808 NARA RG 260 letter no.75
Washington Navy Yard Payrolls of Mechanics and Laborers July 1811 NARA RG 45.
John G. Sharp Washington Navy Yard Payroll of Mechanics and laborers 1819 -1820 Naval History and Heritage Command https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/w/washington-navy-yard-pay-roll-of-mechanics-and-labourers-c1819-1820.html
Board of Navy Commissioners Letters Received by the Board from Officers 1815 -1842 and Commissioners Reports, Estimates, and Surveys NARA Washington D.C. Records Group 45.3
Isaac Hull to BNC 8 April 1829 re Washington Navy Yard Employees.
At WNY ship caulking became a trade dominated by free blacks.16 Most white workers at the Yard shared an attitude of condescension and disdain for blacks reflected in the diary of Michael Shiner. Shiner worked at the WNY first as a slave of the Clerk of the Yard and from 1836 as a freeman painter for forty years. Shiner writes of reprimands to WNY slaves enforced in the Rigging Loft by "the cat of nine tails" or "boatswains starter."17 The workers attitudes mirrored that of the general population and their resentment of the growing employment of blacks by the Department of the Navy.18 White and black workers occupied the same workspaces, yet they lived apart and rarely had any other social interaction. One District resident stated "that the employ of slaves at WNY and other public installations prevents white men from accepting work amongst them as the whites feel it’s degrading."19 Black workers at WNY were expected to be deferential to all whites, but over the years the number of black employees had grown, especially in the blacksmith shop and among the ship caulkers. Some black workers had even begun to speak out and question the equity and fairness of their pay.20
16. The 1808 WNY Muster Rolls reflect the majority of the ship caulkers and reamers as African Americans, see Tingey to Hamilton 5 May 1808 Captains letters 1 Apr 1808 – 28 Jun 1808 NARA RG 260 letter no.15 and Tingey to Hamilton 19 May 1808 Captains letters 1 Apr 1808 – 28 Jun 1808 NARA RG 260 letter no.75
17. Shiner Diary, 1827 19-20, 27. spelling, punctuation etc of the original.
18. Anonymous to Levi Woodberry, 27 August 1831, RG 45/M149, NARA complaining that blacks are employed "when very good may be well qualified" whites are available
19. Daily National Intelligencer 26 April 1816.
20. Tingey to Hamilton, 1 August 1809, RG 45/M125, NARA. In his letter Tingey complains to Hamilton, that black caulker, Henry Adams, whom Tingey characterizes "an ignorant impertinent Negro man" was actually writing to the Secretary of the Navy, regarding his pay. Tingey goes on to declare "I am concerned that you should be thus pestered with, and will certainly endeavor to discover, who it is thus prone to disturb or destroy the regulations & discipline of this yard, by aiding such men as Adams with their pens and stimulating them to troublesome acts."
Prior to the 1835 strike there is evidence of growing economic and racial friction between white and black workers. Additionally, outright racism was a fact of white working class life even in times of economic prosperity. White racism intensified as white mechanics and laborers poured into Washington D.C. to find blacks well entrenched in some key sectors of the unskilled workforce, especially in Wards 6 and 7 and along the Washington waterfront where most of the shipyard workforce resided. One petition to the Secretary of the Navy from a group of white workers in the blacksmith shop stated an apparently prevailing and commonly held view:
Your petitions further complain that they [ar]e now subjected to the insolence of negroes employed in the Navy Yard, altho’ no redress is [suffic]iently provided for your petitioners, against the misconduct of blacks. That one of their body was lately threatened with being discharged for having struck a negro who had grossly misbehaved & they conceived that some provision ought to be made for the purpose of restraining the misconduct of blacks & of only employing such as are orderly & absolutely necessary.21
21. WNY Blacksmiths Petition to Hamilton, circa October 1812, RG 45, NARA. Tingey in his response to Hamilton stated his displeasure but his "understanding however that the negro who was struck, had been extremely careless in his duty, & gave provocation thereby ..." Tingey to Hamilton, 7 October 1812, RG 45/M125, NARA
During the first three decades of the ninetenth century there is ample evidence of growing black use and awareness of the legal system. Due to its proximity to an expanding population of free blacks, and a few sympathetic whites, some enslaved workers at Washington Navy Yard were able to utilize the constrained legal system of the District of Columbia to successfully contest their enslaved status. In 1809 Navy blacksmith helper David “Davy” Davis, through his attorney, filed a petition for freedom. As blacks like Davis challenged their enslavement, word spread at the Navy Yard that there were opportunities, albeit narrow, to take a freedom petition case into the District Courts. Among the enslaved shipyard workers who made this heroic effort, the long and protracted case Joe Thompson vs Walter Clark 1818 is a benchmark. Thompson, a blacksmith striker, through his attorney Francis Scott Key, fought and won a lengthy battle for freedom for himself and his family in 1818. Michael Shiner, who had worked with Thompson, had likewise been promised freedom via a slaveholder’s will. Shiner had
considerable experience for in 1833 he and his wife Phillis had spent a harrowing six months in the District courts with the assistance of Francis Scott Key, seeking the freedom of Phillis and the couple’s three young children: Ann, Harriet and Mary Ann. See Petition for Freedom Phillis Shiner, Ann Shiner, Harriet Shiner and Mary Ann Shiner vs Levi Pumphrey dated 1 May 1833. In 1836 Shiner again chose to use the court as a venue for freedom. This time Shiner sought to enforce (through his attorney) the wills testamentary manumission provisions and on 26 March 1836 petitioned for his freedom and emerged a freeman. Both Joe Thompson and Michael Shiner, after winning their freedom, continued to work at the Navy Yard.
Oh Say Can You See Early Washington D.C., Law & Family
Petition for Freedom Phillis Shiner, Ann Shiner, Harriet Shiner and Mary Ann Shiner vs Levi Pumphrey 1 May 1833.
Negro Phillis and her children v Pumphrey 19 May 1833
Phillis Shiner v. Levi Pumphrey. Affidavits of William Brent et al.6 June 1833
Michael Shinor [Shiner]v Ann Howard & William E. Howard Petition for Freedom 26 March 1836 http://earlywashingtondc.org/doc/oscys.case.0175.001
For employers in the District of Columbia, the increased presence of blacks in the workforce proved a very useful check on white workers wage demands and kept "affairs cool." The "cooling" effects of slave labor on free wages meant that laborers at the mostly all white Massachusetts Charlestown yard received wages of $1.00 a day and sometimes more, while the men in Washington D.C., white and black, earned $0.72.22
22. For the "useful check" of slave labor on white employees, see letter Thomas Johnson, David Stuart, and Daniel Carroll, Commissioners to Thomas Jefferson, 5 January 1793 Commissioners Letter book Vol. I, 1791--1793, NARA RG and for wage difference between Charlestown and WNY see Maloney, 421.
In addition to the perceived threat white workers felt from free and enslaved black workers, by the early nineteenth century masters renting out their slaves had become a distinguishing feature of chattel bondage in the Upper South. As one historian notes, "The Washington Navy Yard was a favorite place to rent out slaves, especially skilled artisans." Slave owners found the high per diem rates at the Yard attractive in comparison to the private sector and openings in the WNY blacksmith shop frequent.23 Further complicating matters for workers at WNY, by the late 1820s the majority of the Yard’s Officers Clerks and master mechanics owned and leased their slaves directly to the Navy where they worked in the shops and yards.24 Commandant Thomas Tingey had even sent his personal appeal to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith "for customary indulgence - An indulgence also common to every officer" to keep his slave on the department pay roll.25 One WNY master mechanic who benefited directly from this practice bluntly made the case for the employment of slaves:
we found by long experience that Blacks have made the best Strikers in the execution of heavy work & are easily subjected to the Discipline of the Shop - & less able to leave us on any change of wages.26
23. John Cassin to Robert Smith 10 May 1808, RG45/M125, NARA. Cassin writes that in the Yard some jobs such as blacksmith striker and ship caulker are so identified with blacks that "I Beg leave to observe there are but very few white men in this neighborhood that can be found to fill their places even for one fourth higher wages".
24. Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity, A History of African American Slaves (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University, The Belknap Press, 2003), 221 and Josephine F Pacheco, The Pearl a Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 20. For ownership of slaves by WNY Officers and master mechanics see Sharp, http://www.genealogytrails.com/washdc/wny1829.html. 1829 muster notates names of naval officers and master mechanics who leased slaves to WNY.
25. Tingey to Robert Smith, 19 May 1808, RG 25/M125, NARA
26. John Davis of Abel to Tingey, 15 March 1817, RG 45/M125, NARA.
One master mechanic noted that the Yard could count on local slave owners to supply the necessary labor and help enforce discipline, "The Strict distinction necessary to be kept up in the shop is more easily enforced – The Liberty white men take of going & coming is avoided the Master of Slaves for their own interest keep them at work."27 Many of the early Secretaries of the Navy were aware that the proximity of white workers and free and enslaved black workers at the Navy Yard could lead to open discord or violence. They were especially concerned about the number of officers and master mechanics who leased enslaved workers to the Navy and they occasionally took steps to limit the number of enslaved and free blacks, less they provoke open animosity by the white workforce. At various times the Department of the Navy went as far as banning the employment of all black, both enslaved and free, but such orders typically were followed by a period of waivers and exceptions as WNY officers and senior civilians pressed their need for black labor.28 Enslaved labor was repeatedly justified by the Yard leadership as absolutely essential to production in the Anchor shop and wherever work was difficult, dangerous or dirty.29 The following justification from 1830 is typical:
The competent mechanics have long known them [slaves] and I have no cause to complain, on the contrary, I consider them the hardest working men in the yard and as they understand their work they can do much more work in a day than new hands could and I should suppose it would require many weeks if not months to get a gang of hands for the Anchor Shop to do the work that is now done.30
27. Benjamin King to Stephen Cassin, 14 January 1809, RG 45/M125, NARA.
28. Circular Board of Navy Commissioners to Commandants of Naval Shipyards, 17 March 1817, RG 45, NARA. "Abuses having existed in some of the Navy yards by the introduction of improper Characters for improper purposes, the Board of Navy Commissioners have deemed it necessary to direct That no Slaves or Negroes, except under extraordinary Circumstances, shall be employed in any navy yard in the United States, & in no case without the authority from the Board of Navy Commissioners."
29.Cassin to Robert Smith 10 May 1808, RG45/M125 NARA. "Understanding it is the intention of the Secretary of the Navy to discharge all Slaves employed in this Yard I Beg leave to observe there are but very few white men in this neighborhood that can be found to fill their places even for one fourth higher wages".
30. Hull, to the Board of Navy Commissioners 5 April 1830, RG 45 NARA
Labor problems and strife at the Yard broke out periodically as the restive and volatile workforce sought higher wages and better conditions. As early as March 1807, the blacksmiths writing to the Secretary of the Navy claimed the "right to Demand an Equal Participation with others in the Benefit of our Labour" and their wages restored. Two years later, Commodore Tingey accused the journeymen coopers and blockmakers of stopping work and "taking undue advantage … of my refusal to raise their wages" and later the same year accused the ship carpenters of withdrawing from their duty "in a combination to coerce an immediate raise in wages." Similarly, the ship joiners petitioned for higher wages in October 1815 and the block makers followed in August 1817. In 1823 the workers complained to the Secretary of the Navy that their pay was calculated improperly and that the WNY purser was pocketing the difference. In March and April of 1830 even the laborers "stood out" for higher pay for one week.31
31. WNY blacksmiths to Robert Smith, 11 March 1807, RG 45/M124, NARA, Tingey to Acting Secretary of the Navy, Charles W. Goldborough, 20 March and 6 November 1809, RG 4/M125, NARA , Ship Joiners Petition to Tingey, 10 October 1815, NARA RG 45/M125. Blockmakers Petition to Tingey, August 13, 1817, NARA RG 45/M125. Taylor Peck, Round–shot to Rockets: A History of the Washington Navy Yard and U.S. Naval Gun Factory (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1949), 83 and 84. In 1830 there was a week protest at WNY where workers "stood out" to raise wages to the summer levels. See "Washington Navy Yard Station Log 1819-1830, 23 March to 1 April 1830," NARA, RG 181, and Maloney, 422.
A change in Navy Yard leadership further raised worker anxiety and concerns during the 1830s. Commodore Thomas Tingey, the Yard’s first and only Commandant for nearly three decades, died in 1829. The new Commandant, Commodore Isaac Hull, assumed his command of the Navy Yard and quickly set about bringing what he perceived were badly needed changes. Hull, a former Captain of the USS Constitution and hero of the War of 1812, was known for running a "tight ship." By the 1830s however Hull suffered acute hearing loss that made communication with Yard employees difficult.32 Hull’s leadership contrasted strongly with Commandant Tingey, who had a sense of noblesse oblige and was popular with most of the mechanics. Hull had a strong animus toward tradesman and mechanics, based largely on his previous poor experience with civilian workers at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston.33 In 1822, Hull had to answer charges that he employed government workers for his own private business, converted government property to his private use, and took part in questionable loans while he was Commandant of the Charlestown Navy Yard. The Naval Court of Inquiry exonerated Hull, but cautioned him and signified in writing that it disapproved of some of his actions regarding the workers and public property. Some of the principal witnesses against Hull were mechanics. Historian Linda Maloney notes, "the bitterness of the affair would never end for Isaac Hull," and for the rest of his life his outlook was marked by "latent suspicion" of mechanics.34 Hull knew the Washington Navy Yard, for he had spent the years 1815-1817 in Washington D.C. as a member of the Board of Navy Commissioners. Hull was also very familiar with the highly critical 1815 report issued by the Board concerning WNY employment practices, many of which Hull sought to change.35 The Commissioners noted they witnessed:
Particularly pressure in the employment of characters unsuited for the public service – maimed & unmanageable slaves for the accommodation of distressed widows & orphans & indigent families - apprentices for the accommodation of their masters – & old men & children for the benefit of their families & parents. These practices must cease.36
32. Niles Weekly Register, 12, 23 November 1822), Naval Court of Inquiry, Navy Department, 31 July 1822 187-192 Maloney, 359. "But the bitterness of the affair would never end for Isaac Hull" and for the rest of his life he was "marked by latent suspicion."
33. For biographical and professional information on the careers of Tingey and Hull, I have relied primarily on Christopher McKee, A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession, the Creation of the United States Naval Officer Corps 1794-1815 (U. S. Naval Institute Press: Annapolis MD 1991), 81-85, for Tingey and for Hull, 299 and 469-471.
34. Maloney, 359.
35. Maloney, 270-271.
36. John Rodgers, to Tingey, 11 May 1815, NARA RG 45/125.
From the start, Hull’s actions challenged some of the key master mechanics and traditional work methods employed in the Yard. After his appointment as Commandant, Hull found that the Yard master mechanics enjoyed many freedoms with which he was unfamiliar. Most especially, he found the master mechanics set their own work priorities, conducted their business with far too much independence and appeared to disregard his orders or carry out his commands with less than the promptness and deference that he expected. Hull quickly came to believe that Yard mechanics were overpaid and underworked. In a revealing letter, Hull wrote to the President of the Navy Board of Commissioners:
If the men employed by day would perform fair days work, it would be much to the public interest to have the work done in that way, [rather than by contract] but experience has shewn me that all the care and attention possible to give them and all the driving and encouragement is thrown away on the mechanics of this place, for if they are at work by the day on a building that there is the least chance of keeping through the whole season they will be sure to do so though it might be completed by mid-summer.37
37. Maloney 422 quoting Hull to Rodgers, 5 April 1833, NARA RG 45/M125.
Hull failed to appreciate that as per diem workers, his employees were concerned that they had sufficient work to last them through the winter. Having a dim view of the mechanics, Hull moved to reduce what he considered excessive and wasteful staffing.38 Hull remained temperamentally incapable of appreciating the Yard mechanics’ economic situation, their craft pride, and their reluctance to change. WNY shipwrights and carpenters, the elite trades of the wooden-hulled Navy, felt especially threatened when the Yard became more focused on metal trades manufacturing and they proved extremely reluctant to abandon their time-honored practices. During Hull’s tenure from 1829 to 1835, shipbuilding on the Potomac dramatically fell as the Yard built just one naval vessel, the aptly named and ill-fated schooner, USS Experiment.39
38. In April 1829, Hull submitted to the Board of Navy Commissioners a list of men employed at WNY and notated it with examples of redundant staffing see Isaac Hull to BNC 8 April 1829 re Washington Navy Yard Employees.
39. Peck, 263 – 264.
Some of Hull’s other initial actions brought him into conflict with three of the WNY’s senior civilian employees. One of his first actions was to review the Board of Navy Commissioners’ "Investigation of Allegations" on the conduct of Master Mechanic Benjamin King. The Navy Board had conducted a full inquiry into charges that Benjamin King and his son Robert King had taken government property and used official time to conduct their own private blacksmithing and iron foundry business. The inquiry called as witnesses numerous master mechanics, journeymen blacksmiths, and apprentices who had worked with King and his son over the years. The investigation found the Kings guilty.40
40. For the Commissioners investigation, of King and his son, see: NARA, Records of the Board of Navy Commissioners, RG 45 correspondence for 1829. This record is not titled and I have referred to it as Minutes of a Board of Navy Commissioners Investigation of Allegations against Benjamin King, Master Chain Cable Maker and Robert King, Black Smith, at the Washington Navy Yard dated 12-20 February 1829. Transcriptions are mine.
In his review, Hull found that complaints had been lodged against Benjamin King for years. "I find King so excessively stupid" he noted, "that I cannot get the time or anything else from him." Hull later wrote to the Chairman of the Board of Navy Commissioner, Commodore John Rodgers, stating "from some cause he appears deranged in his mind, and not to know what he is doing ....I have informed Mr. King, that his services were no longer required in the Shop until your pleasure could be known." Nevertheless, Benjamin King was popular with many of the workers who respected his twenty-eight years of service and trade knowledge and who were more tolerant of his mixing public and private enterprise and his outspoken attitude toward authority. Despite Hull’s pressure for King’s removal, the Secretary of the Navy intervened and decided that in view of Benjamin King’s long service he would be reduced to journeyman status and allowed to continue on the rolls.41
41. Maloney, 420.
Hull next successfully removed John Judge, the Master Machinist, who in the Commodore’s opinion was a non-performer and incapable of keeping the vital steam engines in operation. Hull also took a pronounced dislike to Naval Constructor William Doughty. Naval constructors combined the skills of a naval architect and engineer and Doughty had designed many early naval vessels, including the USS Independence and USS Brandywine. Somewhat unique, the post of Naval Constructor provided Doughty with a wide range of connections; most importantly, it meant that he reported to the Board of Navy Commissioners and not to Hull. Further, his position as Constructor gave Doughty management of a large part of the Yard workforce, which remained under his operational direction. All of this meant that Commodore Hull found himself at odds with most of his workforce and in direct conflict with some of the Yard’s very senior managers whose cooperation he sorely needed. These disagreements would become a factor in the strike of 1835.42
42. Maloney, 437-438.
As Hull’s actions created tense relations with the Yard’s mechanics, word arrived in January 1835 that mechanics at the Boston Navy Yard had dropped their tools and struck for higher wages.43 In May 1835, the Boston carpenters issued their famous "Ten Hour Circular," which found wide distribution throughout the major cities on the eastern seaboard and the District of Columbia and quickly became a rallying cry for reducing the length of the working day.
43. National Parks Service, Charlestown Navy Yard, Handbook 152 (Washington: Government Printing Office, n.d.), 22.
The work in which we are now engaged is neither more nor less than a contest between Money and Labor: Capital, which can only be made productive by labor, is endeavoring to crush labor the only source of all wealth. We have been too long subjected to the odious, cruel, unjust, and tyrannical system which compels the operative Mechanic to exhaust his physical and mental powers by excessive toil, until he has no desire but to eat and sleep, and in many cases he has no power to do either from extreme debility.44
44. John A. Commons, ed., A Documentary History of American Industrial Society ,Volume VI (New York: Russell and Russell, 1958), 94-99.
The Yard mechanics also received a circular letter from the shipwrights of Philadelphia complaining that working in the Navy Yards was worse than "Egyptian Bondage." They pressed other ship yard workers to join them for a general strike in support of a ten-hour work day.45 Labor unrest also arose within Washington, D.C. in 1835 as efforts got underway to form a Trades Union to represent all the trades within the District of Columbia. Journeymen mechanics from the bricklaying, cordwaining, and carpenters, and other trades met in December and issued demands for a ten-hour day, universal suffrage, universal education and the abolition of imprisonment for debt.46 Many of these demands mirrored those made in other large seaboard cities. Simultaneous rapid inflation sent commodity prices in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, New York and the District of Columbia soaring beyond the means of journeymen wage rates.
45. Maloney, 437.
46. Commons, 118-119.
Inflation and general labor unrest on the eastern seaboard and in the District of Columbia created an atmosphere conducive for the 1835 Washington Navy Yard strike. These factors combined with the Yard's history of periodic labor unrest, the changes in its mission from ship building to manufacturing, the demographic shifts that expanded the use of enslaved and free black labor within the District and the Yard itself, and the tensions created by Commodore Isaac Hull’s leadership. All this converged to bring the Yard to a critical and tense stage in August 1835. Now it would take only a small incident to carry the mechanics out on strike.47
47. Maloney, 437.
For some time Hull heard WNY master mechanics complain regarding the loss of tools and other small items. He set up a watch and not long afterward, on 27 July 1835, Anthony Sumner, a blacksmith striker in the Anchor shop, was found hiding a copper spike in his lunch basket. Later, in a search of his house, more missing government property appeared.48 Sumner later stated he stole the items in order to sell and thus support his large family. Perhaps remembering the allegations lodged against him during his time as Commandant at Boston Naval Yard, Hull moved to avoid a similar incident, deciding that he must act promptly to stop any further theft of government property.49
48. The Metropolitan 12 December 1835, contains a full account of Anthony Sumners 27 July 1835 arrest for theft of WNY property, his trial and his eventual pardon from President Andrew Jackson.
49. Hull to Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson, 1 August 1835, RG 45, NARA "Complaints have been made to me by the Master Workmen at the Yard of the disappearance of tools, copper, etc., so frequently that I was induced to direct a watch to be kept in the workshops during the hours allotted for meals to ascertain if possible by whom the articles were taken."
On 29 July 1835, Hull issued a new and unprecedented regulation forbidding Yard workers and mechanics from entering shop spaces during their lunch break and from bringing lunches on the yard property. The order read:
The Commandant of the Navy Yard at Washington D.C. finds it necessary to adopt the following regulations Vizt The Mechanics (with the exception of the Anchorsmiths & Engineers) and Laborers employed in the Navy Yard are prohibited entering the Workshops, Ship Houses and other places where the public property, Tools &c are deposited, during the hours allotted to Meals.
The Mechanics and Laborers are forbidden to bring their Meals into the Yard either in Baskets, Bags or otherwise, and none will be permitted to eat their Meals within the Yard unless specially permitted by the Commandant."50
50. Hull to Dickerson, August 12, 1835, RG 45, NARA, the other enclosure is untitled and lists "No of persons who left the Yard", "No. of persons since returned" and "No. now in the Yard", RG 45, NARA. On the first enclosure Hull gives the figure of 209 men and 22 "Oakum boys" for a total of 231 as of 12 August 1835. In examining reports from this period, one needs to keep in mind that all WNY mechanics and laborers are per diem employees hence the Yard population figures were subject to large variations. Original document image
If the Commodore thought that his workforce would be in accord with his actions aimed at stopping theft, he quickly discovered otherwise. While Hull had never been particularly popular with the men, many had been willing to go along, even if a bit reluctantly, with his changes. The men also passed in silence on his decisions regarding Benjamin King, William Judge, and his antipathy to the more popular William Doughty. But it was Hull’s order that finally hit directly at the worker’s sense of dignity. Now they no longer could carry even their own lunch into the Yard. Many viewed the order as nothing more than a presumption that they were all thieves. Doughty, never one to hold back his opinion, took this opportunity to denounce Hull’s regulations, telling the men "Hull must think them all worse then [sic] thieves."51
51. Maloney, 437.
In the early United States Navy, men mustered on ships afloat and ashore. The muster was a set, almost religious ritual, and at the naval yard and all naval installations, every civilian employee was required to muster three times a day.52 Failure to muster was a serious offense. When Francis Barry, the Clerk of the Roll, began reading the morning muster roll in the early light of Friday, 31 July 1835, a few men filed in to answer while their workmates stood nearby just outside the main "Latrobe Gate" yelling and urging them, "Don’t answer! Don’t answer!" Three-quarters of men employed in August 1835, 175 of 231 left the Yard and joined their colleagues on strike.53 Ship carpenters, carpenter’s laborers, blacksmiths, plumbers, and the block makers formed the most active and committed contingent among the strikers. The strike, the first of its kind in the federal service and without precedent in the naval shipyards, had commenced.54
52. Robert Smith, to John Cassin, 10 January 1804, "directions respecting the employing and paying workmen laborers &c at the Navy Yard at this place’. RG 45/M125, NARA.
53. Maloney, 437 and Hull to Dickerson, 12 August 1835 with two enclosures, titled: "Number & Occupations of men Now Employ’d in Washington Navy Yard" RG 45/M125, NARA.
54. David Ziskind, One Thousand Strikes of Government Employees. (New York: Columbia University Press) 1940. 2.
The WNY strikers quickly formed a committee and selected their leaders: Samuel Briggs (a plumber), George Lyndall (a young ship joiner), and John Miskill (a carpenter). The three leaders, followed by 150 of their fellow strikers, immediately carried their petition directly to the office of Secretary of the Navy, Mahlon Dickerson, located just a mile and half away on Capitol Hill, "to pray for redress of grievances."55 To secure greater political support they sent another delegation of mechanics to a vacationing President Andrew Jackson in Rip Raps, Virginia. To Secretary Dickerson the three leaders stated the employee’s grievances and objections to Hull’s behavior. Among the concerns the strikers listed were:
his administration was marked by his despotic power by parading us all before him to try the tempers of the men swearing, in the most blasphemous manner".... in direct or indirect manner accused us publicly of stealing the public property he has now gone so far that forbearance has ceased to be a virtue ...
He has caused men who have spent their youth and prime of life working as Mechanics in the Navy Yard to be reduced to want either by discharging them or curtailing their wages and for me no other cause save olde age.56
55. Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser 3 August 1835.
56. WNY workers petition to Dickerson dated 1 August 1835, Record Group 45, National Archives, Washington, D.C. which lists their grievances and concerns against Hull. The Washington Mirror, August 2, 1835, has a brief account of the striker’s journey to the Dickerson’s office.
Hull quickly received a query from Dickerson, as to what was going on at the Navy Yard that had prompted workers to strike. On 1 August 1835, Hull replied with a copy of his original order and an explanation of what in his judgment incited the workers action:
The regulation has met with disapprobation of the workmen generally and without stating their objections and without assigning their reasons for doing so have left the yard and ended their work. I cannot conceive of any good reason and I believe that the mechanics of this said yard have been acted upon by other causes.57
57. Hull to Dickerson, 1 August 1835, RG 45/125 NARA Underscoring is in the original.
Hull suggested that those advocating the ten-hour day were exerting a far greater influence on the workforce walkout than his order. While defensive in tone, Hull was correct as to outside influences", since some of the grievance petition echoed the Ten Hour Circular. While perceptive regarding "outside influences," he was blind to the reality that his order inflamed an already tense workforce.58
The strike immediately exposed racial discord in the Yard. In an undated diary entry for August 1835, African American Yard worker Michael Shiner clearly stated that WNY white workers had demanded that the black caulkers stop work:
Commodore Hull ishsared and evry one of them struck and said they wouldnt work anny moore and at the same time they wher collered man from Baltirmoore by the name of isral Jones a caulker by Trade he was the foman Caulker of those Colerded Caulkers and they wher fifteen or twenty of them here at that time Caulkin on the Col lumbia and the Carpinters made all of them knock oft two.59
59. Shiner Diary 1835, 60. spelling, punctuation, etc. of the original.
The thirty-one ship caulkers who were primarily African American did not strike, nor did the majority of the "oakum boys," young African Americans who acted as caulker helpers.
Historian Phillip Foner reads Michael Shiner as stating "white carpenters and caulkers and Negro Caulkers employed in the Navy Yard in Washington joined in a strike in July 1835." Foner misinterpreted Shiner’s key phrase " the carpinters made all of them knock oft two." This was not an instance of black and white workers joining together in labor solidarity; it represented a case of white workers intimidating a group of black caulkers. This is far from racial camaraderie, for Shiner goes on to state that the white workers were so angry with Commodore Hull "they threatened to come to the navy yard after commodore Hull." The white workers were angry at Hull for bringing black workers on the Yard in the first place. Unfortunately Foner’s erroneous reading of the strike of 1835 as an early example of labor’s racial solidarity recently has been used in an article published by the National Archives and Records Administration as evidence of black and white workers forging a common labor bond.60
60. Phillip S. Foner’s black and white worker racial solidary thesis in the 1835 strike still lingers despite the direct evidence of Shiner’s diary at the National Archives Prologue Magazine https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/american-labor-movement.html accessed 13 June 2019. James Gilbert Cassedy in “African Americans and the American Labor Movement” Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2) writes “African Americans played a dominant role in the caulking trade, and there is documentation of a strike by black caulkers at the Washington Navy Yard in 1835”Cassedy then sites Foner and Norman A. Hill, "Forging A Partnership Between Blacks and Unions," The Monthly Labor Review (August 1987): 38. Hill goes further and speculates “There is probably further documentation of this event among the Records of Naval Districts and Shore Establishments, Record Group 181”
Contrary to Foner Michael Shiner was not free in 1835, see, Oh Say Can You See Early Washington D.C., Law & Family Michael Shinor v Ann Howard & William E. Howard Petition for Freedom 26 March 1836 http://earlywashingtondc.org/doc/oscys.case.0175.001 Likewise Shiner did not begin work at the navy yard in 1814 see Shiner Diary introduction.
For the first week, the strikers managed to hold together hoping that Hull and the Secretary of the Navy would accede quickly to their requests. During the second week, however racial tensions long evident at the Washington Navy Yard erupted into violence. Instead of fellow black workers, the white workforce took out its anger on the city’s free black population. Washington, like many southern cites, lived with the ever-present fear of a Nat Turner-like rebellion. These fears and anxieties suddenly increased when on August 8, eight days into the strike, the City’s National Intelligencer newspaper carried the astonishing account of Arthur Bowen, an 18 year old slave, who allegedly attempted to murder his white mistress. Two days later, several Washington newspapers contained an equally dramatic story that Dr. Reuben Crandall, a white physician and botanist from New England, stood accused of receiving abolitionist literature for distribution to the City’s black population. Public fear intensified on 11 August 1835, as the police arrested Crandall on charges of "circulating incendiary publications among Negroes of the District." At the same time, a rumor started that a free black man named Beverly Snow, the owner of a popular oyster restaurant, verbally slighted the wives of the WNY mechanics.
The racial events in the city melded into the strike and created a new target on which the striking mechanics could take out their ire. Groups of young Yard mechanics quickly assembled outside the City Jail demanding that Ruben Crandall be given to them for summary justice. Some of the other mechanics and young apprentices, angered over black employment at the Yard and the perception that blacks might be persuaded to break the strike, decided to take vengeance on the free black community. Their anger focused on the City’s black schools and churches. Workers attacked and ransacked these institutions, ostensibly looking "for antislavery papers and documents." Not forgetting Snow’s alleged derogatory remark toward their wives, shipyard worker Michael Shiner wrote that "mechanics of all classes gathered into Snows restaurant and broke it up Root and Branch." "Snow flew for his life that night" and escaped according to Shiner, but the still angry mechanics "threatened to come to the Navy Yard after Commodore Hull."61
61. Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan, A History of the National Capital: From its Foundation through the Period of the Adoption of the Organic Act, vol 2: 1815-1878 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916), 143. George Washington Williams, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880, Volume II (New York: G.P. Putnam and Son 1883), 189-190. For more of the "Snow Riot" effect on the lives of African Americans, see Jefferson Morley, "The Snow Riot" Washington Post 6 February 2005, W14.2.
The strike, riot, and the workers situation began to grip public attention. The National Intelligencer referred to the unfolding events as "The progress of misrule in the City of Washington." Newspaper publisher William Seaton, a strong backer of Andrew Jackson and supportive of the City mechanics in general, urged through the National Intelligencer, "We therefore beseech all of the more considerate of those who are yet joined to the agitators, to reflect on the consequences to us all, of this continued disturbance of the peace, and desist."62 Seaton’s wife Josephine also reflected in a letter on the strike and riot:
Snow will certainly be torn to pieces by the mechanics if he be caught, and they are in full pursuit of him. Unfortunately, several hundred mechanics of the navy yard are out of employment, who, aided and abetted by their sympathizers, create the mob, — the first I have ever seen, not recollecting those of Sheffield, and it is truly alarming.63
62. Daily National Intelligencer editorial 14 August 1835.
63. Seaton , Josephine William Winston Seaton of the National Intelligencer: A Biographical Sketch, James R. Osgood : Boston, 1871, p. 217.
Likewise on 12 August 1835, an anonymous observer reported, “300 workmen at the Navy Yard stuck or mutinied, call it what you please, at the Navy, and paraded the streets with band and banner against old Commodore Hull, who commands there.”63a
63a Washington Review and Examiner, (Washington, PA), 22 August 1835
Hull came under pressure from Dickerson, a masterful politician, who was more mindful of public discontent and strove to persuade the Commandant to revise his decision, but Hull remained firm in his conviction that some of his men were pilfering tools and supplies. The number of young mechanics and apprentices on the streets, threatening and attacking not only the black population but also now public order, alarmed the mayor and town council. In a series of orders and proclamations they begged for help in containing the rioting young men by requesting "Parents, guardians and others are earnestly requested to keep their children, apprentices &c within doors after dusk."64
64. Daily National Intelligencer, 13 August 1835.
By the end of second week in August 1835, the economic effects of the strike had begun to take its toll on the workers. With no strike fund and the meager savings of per diem employees evaporating, the men began to return to work.65
65. Isaac Hull to Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson, 12 August 1835 with enclosure, RG 45, NARA.
Number & Occupation of Men Employ’d in Washington Navy Yard:
Occupation # who left Yard # returned # now Carpenters 22 none 7 Carpenters Laborers 15 3 27 Caulkers-do. 2 non2 12 do. Boys 6 1 22 Blacksmith 42 26 48 Plumbers 24 18 21 Joiners 13 5 6 Pile Drivers 16 7 7 Blockmakers 15 5 7 Machinist 7 2 Painters none none 5 Bricklayers none do 2 armourers 1 none 5 do Laborers 12 3 19 Carriage Makers none none 8 Sawyers none none 2 Caulkers none none 31
Hull enclosed a chart with the figures above in his letter of 12 August 1835 to Secretary of the Navy, Mahlon Dickerson. Hull sought to persuade Dickerson that the strike was waning and the workers returning.
According to Hull’s figures, of the 175 workers who went on strike, 107 were still out. The strongest group of hold outs remained the ship carpenters and many of their young apprentices, urged on by the inimitable William Doughty and his steadfast antipathy toward Hull.
Hull’s poor judgment early in the strike complicated both the racial situation at the Yard and the resolution to strike. He had brought down from Baltimore a work crew of free black caulkers to caulk the frigate Columbia. This action inflamed an already volatile situation and was a key reason why the mechanics threatened to attack the Yard after they destroyed Snow’s restaurant.66
66. Maloney, 439.
A worried Hull sought to justify his own position and to share his concern for the way events were evolving. On 14 August 1835, he wrote a letter to Secretary of the Navy, and expressed some apprehension for the safety of the black caulkers that he recently hired. Rather than make a decision, Hull looked to the Secretary for a solution to his dilemma.
Information has been conveyed to me that the Excitement which has prevailed in the City for some days past is about to be extended to the Neighborhood of the Establishment; the immediate Cause I understand is there are employed in the Yard a number of Blacks, who were in consequence of the Scarcity of Caulkers in this City brought in from Baltimore to caulk the Ship now building.
Under the Circumstances I have to request that you will be pleased to give me instructions, Shall I let the Blacks inside the yard and Afford them such protection as the force and means at my Command will allow or shall I discharge them and afford them an opportunity to return to Baltimore?67
67. Commodore Isaac Hull to Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson, 14 August 1835
As one historian has noted, Secretary Dickerson chose to throw the black caulkers to the mob as he promptly replied, "In answer to your letter of this date, I have to observe that for the present should think it not best to admit the colored people in the Navy Yard at night."68
68. Maloney, 439
Toward the end of the second week of August, after some apparent consideration to their increasingly precarious financial and legal state, the workers committee wrote the Commandant, "While you have the power to make laws for the protection of public property, we have it within our power to refuse our services when those laws oppress us and in their nature will cast a shadow of suspicion on our characters."69 On Friday evening August 14 1835, the local papers reported some arrests were made in connection with the riot. Included among the arrestees was an alleged leader a ship carpenter by the name of Laub. The Washington Telegraph reported that with the "imprisonment of two or three turbulent persons, the threatening aspect of the affairs passed away and the peace of the city remained undisturbed."70
69. Maloney, 438.
70. Washington Telegraph 15 August 1835 states that "Mr. Laub, one of the rioters, was taken up by the Police officers, and while his trial was going on some noisy fellows collected round the police office, and threatened to take him out of custody of the officers, and a Mr. Sweeting who we understand, is a citizen of Philadelphia became very wrathy, & went into the office drew his knife, collared one of the magistrates, and swore that he should release Laub."
As their economic situation deteriorated and stung by public criticism of their actions and the arrest of one of their own in the Snow riot, the strikers sought to end the strike. The two sides came together in an agreement that both Hull and the workers accepted through the offices of an outside mediator, Dr. Alexander A. McWilliams, who had a medical practice adjacent to the navy yard and was known to both the workforce and Hull.71 As part of this mediated settlement the Yard workers publicly acknowledged Hull’s good character. "You disclaim any intention on your part of casting any imputation on our characters; but on the contrary you entertain the highest opinion of us as regards our honesty and integrity." The workers also had agreed to suspend all further publication against Hull. Hull for his part agreed to alter his original order which the workers found so offensive, "to take out anything derogatory to the feelings of any man and that all the men who are willing shall be allowed to return to the Yard," The workers strike committee then ran a notice in the local newspapers stating the "whole matter has been settled to the satisfaction of all parties; and that the workmen have returned to their employments in the Yard."72
71. S.A. Elliot, ed. The Washington Directory 1827 (Washington D.C.: S.A. Elliot, 1827), 6.
72.Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser, 14 August 1835, Daily National Intelligencer 14 August 1835. Newspaper clipping
We the undersigned, committee appointed by the Workmen of the Navy Yard, Washington, to adjust the difficulties which have recently occurred between the Commandant and the Men employed in the Yard, in relation to his late orders, take pleasure in stating, that the whole matter has been settled to the satisfaction of all parties and that the workmen have returned to their employments in the Yard. In making this announcement, they feel called upon as an act of justice to the Commandant of the Yard, and it is a duty they discharge with pleasure, to inform the public that the misunderstanding which has unfortunately existed between them originated in a misconception of his motives; and in that the percipiency in which they acted led them into other difficulties, or else, in their opinion, the matter would have been sooner settled.
The strike officially ended on Saturday August 15, 1835 and the workers returned to the Yard that Saturday morning. Although Hull and the mechanics attempted to smooth over their differences by noting they derived from a misunderstanding, both parties had lost much in the course of the strike. Hull had received an object lesson in the limits of power; he could order but could not compel. The event left Hull offended deeply by the strikers and to some degree by the suggestions of Dickerson to accept mediated compromise. On 10 September 1835 Isaac Hull requested and received a year leave of absence. He never returned to Washington Navy Yard.73 For the workers, the strike revealed the weakness and tenuous nature of their bargaining situation. As per diem labor in a protracted dispute, and absent effective organization, they inevitably suffered. The strike also revealed the corrosive effects of racism on the workforce, as white workers sought to blame their own precarious economic situation on free and enslaved African Americans. Further, the strike left as part of its legacy a deep and abiding racial mistrust, which would linger. For the next century, the history of the strike and subsequent race riot remained an embarrassment to be glossed over and disassociated from the Washington Navy Yard’s official history.74
73. Maloney, 440.
74. There have been three histories sponsored in whole or in part by the Department of the Navy: Henry B. Hibben Navy-Yard, Washington (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1890), Peck and Edward Marolda, The Washington Navy Yard an Illustrated History. (Annapolis: Naval Historical Center, 1999). Only Edward Marolda, mentions slavery 24-25.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became America’s preeminent abolitionist and African American spokesperson, knew the world of the shipyard workers. From his own experiences as an enslaved ship caulker he later summed up the dilemma and pitfalls facing free labor in a slave society where racism tainted every aspect of human relations.
The slaveholder, with craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the white almost as much a slave as the black slave himself. The difference between the white slave and the black slave is this: the latter belongs to one slaveholder, and the former belongs to all the slaveholders collectively. The white slave has taken from him by indirection, what the black slave has taken by the same directly, and without ceremony. Both are plundered by the same plunderers. The slave is robbed by his master of all his earnings above what is required for his bare necessities, and the white man robbed by the slave system, of just results of his labor, because he is flung into competition with a class of laborers who work without wages.75
75. Frederick Douglas, Autobiographies, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (The Library of America: 1994), 330.
For President Andrew Jackson’s administration and the Department of the Navy, the fight over the ten-hour day, the strike at Washington Navy Yard and especially the workers participation in the Snow Riot, must have been embarrassing. Local newspapers wailed "The Republic has degenerated into a democracy". Even the Jacksonian National Intelligencer criticized the mechanics. The rioting workers had pulled down and burned three houses within a half mile of the White House. They had even threatened to enter and search the White House based on a rumor that one of President Jackson’s free black domestics received abolitionist papers.76 Within the year the Jackson administration conceded to some workers at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard a ten-hour work day; however, it made no such concessions to the WNY employees. In December of 1835 at a meeting of working men of the District, a speaker still asserted "a right to claim at least, an equal share of the fruits of our labor and the time to enjoy it and when it is attempted to be wrested from us, or denied, to use all fair and honorable means to save it".77 The ten-hour day did not come to WNY until Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, needed worker support during his 1840 re-election bid. In a tightly contested race, Van Buren saw the ten-hour day as an opportunity to buttress worker support by granting Federal shipyard workers a ten-hour work day on federal public works without a reduction of wages.78
76. Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson the Course of Empire 1833-1845 (New York: Harper Row, 1984), 268-269.
77. Commons, 118.
78. Sharp, 22-23.
Transcription This transcription was made from digital images of Captains Letters and documents received by the Secretary of the Navy, NARA M125 "Captains Letters" and Records of the Board of Navy Commissioners, RG45 National Archives and Records. In transcribing all passages from the letters and documents, I have striven to adhere as closely as possible to the original in spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and abbreviation, superscripts, etc., including the retention of dashes and underlining found in the original. Words and passages that were crossed out in the letters are transcribed either as overstrikes or in notes. When a spelling is so unusual as to be misleading or confusing, the correct spelling immediately follows the misspelled word in square brackets and italicized type or is discussed in a footnote.
The names of all naval ships are italicized and are linked where possible to other Naval Historical Center records pertaining to that vessel. Lastly the endnotes and others in brackets are placed to help identify issues, personalities and incidents mentioned. Please remember that many of the historical documents and excerpts cited below were created during the nineteenth century, and reflect the predominant attitudes and language used at the time.
Footnotes: Names, ranks, dates of naval and marine officers, listed below are unless otherwise specified, from Naval History and Heritage Command Officers Continental and US Navy and Marine Corps 1775 -1900 https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/o/officers-continental-usnavy-mc-1775-1900.html
The log entries record both the mundane and historic. These were generally written as they occurred and were recorded by the ever busy watch officers. Washington Navy Yard Station Log Entries November 1822-December 1889 Transcribed with Introduction and Notes by John G. Sharp Naval History 2014, Heritage Command https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/w/washington-navy-yard-station-log-november-1822-march-1830-extracts.html
John G. Sharp 14 May 2019
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Thomas Tingey, to the Board of Navy Commissioners, 9 January 1821, re Statement of wages paid to Mechanics and Laborers 1801 to 1820.
Periodically, the Board of Navy Commissioners expressed concern, about the number of vacancies at Washington Navy Yard for skilled workers and requested data on wages. Commodore Thomas Tingey, in his letter to the BNC, detailed the wage rates for skilled mechanics and laborers over a twenty year period. For modern researchers it can be revealing that wages fell during the early nineteenth century and in some cases dramatically. For example, carpenter’s wages were reduced from a high of 2.50 in the years 1814 to a low of 1.64 in 1820.
Source: Tingey to Board of Navy Commissioners, 9 January 1821 National Archives and Records Administration Washington DC RG 45, Entry 314, Volume 74
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Navy Yard Wash 9th Jan 1821
Conformably with the instructions of the Board of 3rd inst, I transmit herewith, a scale of rates of wages to the mechanics &c, from the early establishment of this Yard, as correctly as it can now be ascertained in which memory has assisted much.
In the scale I issued, by your order for the new rate of wages, I omitted naming the Coopers, submitting it for your further consideration, that branch having now higher wages in Alexandria, and probably not one man there capable of performing our heavy work.
I also enclose a copy of a letter from Mr. Davis, whose men have nearly all left him, they are a set of valuable workmen - and were always paid equal to the 1st rate smiths, which rate would probably bring many of them back, and which I beg leave respectfully to recommend, as well as a reconsideration relative to the Coopers.
I have the honor to be
Commd John Rodgers very respectfully
&C &C Sir, Your Obedt Servt.
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Statement of wages given to Mechanics &c, in the Navy Yard Washington, from 1801 to 1820
Carpenters, Boat Builders and Mast Makers
[Dollars/Cents] 125 to
[Dollars / Cents]
Blacksmith & Plumbers
(Since the reorganization of the Yard after the Fire the armourers employed have been attached to the Plumbers rolls -)
Navy Yard Wash 9th Jan. 1821
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John G. “Jack” Sharp resides in Concord, California. He worked for the United States Navy for thirty years as a civilian personnel officer. Among his many assignments were positions in Berlin, Germany, where in 1989 he was in East Berlin, the day the infamous wall was opened. He later served as Human Resources Officer, South West Asia (Bahrain). He returned to the United States in 2001 and was on duty at the Naval District of Washington on 9/11. He has a lifelong interest in history and has written extensively on the Washington, Norfolk, and Pensacola Navy Yards, labor history and the history of African Americans. His previous books include African Americans in Slavery and Freedom on the Washington Navy Yard 1799 -1865, Morgan Hannah Press 2011.
History of the Washington Navy Yard Civilian Workforce 1799-1962, 2004.
and the first complete transcription of the Diary of Michael Shiner Relating to the History of the Washington Navy Yard 1813-1869, 2007/2015 online:
His most recent work includes Register of Patients at Naval Hospital Washington DC 1814 With The Names of American Wounded From The Battle of Bladensburg 2018,
The last three works were all published by the Naval History and Heritage Command. John served on active duty in the United States Navy, including Viet Nam service. He received his BA and MA in History from San Francisco State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org